The Pros and Cons of “Said-Bookisms”

Recently, a rejection letter of mine emphasized an issue that I had never heard any editor complain of in my work before.

“The said-bookisms are too distracting,” the editor had bluntly expressed.

“Said-bookisms?” I mumbled to myself. “What on earth is a said-bookism?”

And so I looked it up. Lo and behold, I was guided to a tropes page, where the definition of said-bookisms was loudly spelled out for me.

For those of you unwilling to look it up yourselves, a said-bookism is essentially when the author feels like another form of “said” is in order. When entering the realm of purple prose, this can generally muck up writing by focusing too much on the wrong thing, that being the dialogue tag and not the dialogue/story/characterization itself.

I have seen so many writers, agents, and editors tell aspiring writers that all they ever need to use is “said.” Well, I agree with this, to some extent. However, I also respectfully disagree.

The Cons

  • By using so many specific words like “hissed,” “cajoled,” “shouted,” etc., you are drawing attention away from what really matters: the actual words in relation to the character. Let’s say that your main character is raising his voice. You could write,

“That’s not true!” he yelled emphatically.

Is the fact that he yelled emphatically telling us anything about the scene or the character? No? Then take it out.

“That’s not true!”

Ah. Better.

  • It makes you sound pretentious. I know that when you go through your manuscript, you sometimes sit there and preen over what a good job you’ve done to sound smart and poetic (guilty). In some cases, feel free to preen. In other cases, you might just be desperate, and therefore go to extremes to achieve poetic prose. Try to really understand what it is you’re saying.
  • Simplicity. What is not said is more meaningful than what is said.

Now that you’re all in a dander, let me present:

The Pros

  • Sometimes, the said-bookisms do reflect the character, or what they are doing right now in the scene. Perhaps they’re hiding out on a police sting, waiting for the bad guy to show up:

“Do you see him yet?” she said.

This is a sting. Try to lower your voice, would you?

“Do you see him yet?” she whispered.

There we go. Now the dialogue tag fits a little better with the action.

  • When you don’t sound pretentious, your ability to understand how the more unique words should be used will thrill and impress your reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reread scenes from books just because of the interesting language, including those dreaded said-bookisms. When they’re done right, they’re done really right.
  • While being simple and subtle is good and all, it can get so boring to just see “said” multiple times on nearly every page. As a reader, I want diversity, and I want to know how things are being said, not just that they are said.

With that being said/heralded/publicized, I still respectfully maintain that each writer is entitled to his or her opinion, but that no matter what sort of style you choose, make it good, and make it your own.

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2 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of “Said-Bookisms”

  1. Amy says:

    Hi Tara 🙂
    I feel like sometimes the decision of whether to use said-bookisms (new vocab word for me! Thanks.) is based on more than just “do I need to describe how this is said” or not. For me, dialog tags are more for the benefit of knowing who is speaking.

    Like, I’d agree with your “That’s not true!” example, but supposing that the emphatic yeller is in a group of characters, and we need to know that John yelled it and not Sam or Billy. “Yelled emphatically” is still not telling us anything new, and yet the sentence “”That’s not true!” John said,” feels off to me, because he’s obviously yelling, not saying. Do you think maybe said-bookisms become more acceptable when it’s not an option to leave the tag off entirely? Or is “said” really the better way to go unless you *need* to describe a voice?

    • Amy,
      That’s a great point, and one I didn’t bring up in the examples. From what I’ve gathered, many editors prefer “said” even when just explaining who is talking, because over time readers will come to expect what inflections characters use. For example:

      Jim asked, “Did you catch the game last night?”
      “No,” Bob said. “We went out.”
      “You’re always going out,” said Harvey. “Stay in once in a while.”

      I think lots of people might prefer this method, simply because it reads faster. Over time, readers will eventually skip over words like “the” and therefore read faster (so being smart isn’t correlated with fast reading, it’s just how much you read in general). So, likewise, “said” will become a word very similar to “the” for the well-read person. However, I do still contend that sometimes, it’s good to explain how something is being “said” so that we slow down and take in the language/setting rather than just flying through a section. Although if “That’s not true!” John said does feel wrong (and yes, it does read rather funny), an editor might say that you can leave off the “John said” in general. Maybe something like this:

      “That’s not true!” John banged his fist on the table.

      That’s showing an inflection, who is speaking, AND giving the character something to do.

      Hope that helps! Sorry if I just rambled. 🙂

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